Whether blue or green, one of the biggest challenges for the growing “clean” hydrogen business is how to transport the final product safely — and store or use the associated carbon dioxide — without undoing many of the fuel’s emission-reduction gains in the process.

In the near term, developers are focusing on blue hydrogen “clusters” that have the necessary conditions to make a project economically viable.

In Upstream’s blue hydrogen and carbon capture online event this week, Narik Basmajian, vice president of the hydrogen product line at Technip Energies, listed three criteria for project viability: the availability of affordable natural gas as a hydrogen source, existing pipeline infrastructure and “CO2 sequestration potential”.

Blue hydrogen will therefore find favour in a handful of regions, he said: the North Sea, Russia, parts of the US and Middle East, and Australia.

“Clusters in these regions appear highly probable,” Basmajian said.

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German climate think tank Agora Energiewende has proposed a “hydrogen backbone” in Europe that incorporates a portion of the existing pipeline network.

Gniewomir Flis, energy and climate advisor at Agora Energiewende, said the organisation has identified about 10% of the European network that could be affordably upgraded for hydrogen transport.

“In general, we think it is a good idea to repurpose the existing network,” Flis said, adding that a recent study identified four European zones — south-east Spain, a swath of north-west Europe, and two regions in eastern Europe — as “no regret” sectors “where hydrogen use is indispensable and carries the lowest risk of stranded assets”.

Neri Askland, senior advisor at Equinor and head of the company’s decarbonisation initiative, echoed chief executive Anders Opedal’s recent remarks about Equinor’s vision of Norway as an energy hub for Europe, including export capacity for hydrogen.

Developing a new infrastructure system, including pipelines, will be key to such a programme, Askland said.

“It is possible that some pipelines can be repurposed, but more research needs to be done to ensure that the materials and configuration of existing pipelines are suitable for transporting hydrogen, either in a natural gas mixture or on its own,” he said.

“What is clear is that we will need more pipeline infrastructure to support the size and the scale we are envisioning for future hydrogen systems.”

Flis said developers should pay heed to recent warnings about the potential greenhouse gas emissions of blue hydrogen, risks that are compounded by the fuel’s transportation.

“It is a very pertinent question,” he said.

Mitigation efforts should focus on reducing methane leaks in the production chain, verification of the carbon capture mechanism, and to minimise fugitive emissions, locating blue hydrogen plants as close as possible to the gas fields that supply them with feedstock, Flis said.

Gary Morris, senior advisor at Tudor, Pickering, Holt, sees “a real threat” to blue hydrogen’s future “if it produces more greenhouse gases than we originally thought”.

“That could be all the impetus needed to turn the public against it,” he warned.

Flis added: “In the EU hydrogen strategy, the only hydrogen that is considered sustainable in the long run is green hydrogen. For now, this question is sort of swept under the carpet, but in the future it will cause tensions.”

Risk-mitigation strategies could be implemented to make blue hydrogen “part of the energy transition to 2050 and maybe beyond”, he said.

Jane Ploeger, industrial applications products technology head at Siemens Energy, noted that the ideal locations for large-scale development of green hydrogen tend not to be close to the target markets.

“So, we come to the additional cost of transporting the hydrogen that you have produced,” she said.

That compounds inefficiency and raises the risk of emissions.

“The transportation itself still needs to be solved,” Ploeger said.

“We have different ways to transport (hydrogen), but it is not clear which of these is the best and the most efficient. Do we first convert it into ammonia in order to transport it? Do we liquefy?

"All of these have associated losses and costs, and I don’t think anybody has figured this out yet... I think a collaborative approach between industries would be the way to go,” Ploeger added.